Author photo by Tricia McCormack
A storyteller, teacher and dad, Brendan Mathews wears many a hat and strolls many a street, of which a noteworthy one is war-torn New York. His book, The World of Tomorrow, is set during one week in June 1939, halfway between the opening of the World’s Fair and the outbreak of World War II. It’s a sprawling, rambunctious novel packed with jazz musicians, artists, gangsters, socialites, politicians, con men, and ghosts. As these characters collide, the book explores the forces that bind people together—the obligations of family, or love, or a sense of duty—and asks what we’re willing to do [or not] to realize our dreams of a better tomorrow. The writer takes us into his world.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you began your journey in writing.
I always wanted to write but I didn’t make a serious effort at it until I was in my 30s and my wife was expecting our first child. All through my 20s, I worked a variety of jobs—marketing, architectural salvage, journalism, failed dot-coms—and my notebooks from those years were filled with half-written scenes and ideas for longer stories. But with a baby on the way, I suddenly had this vision of telling our daughter that she should always chase her dreams, and I knew that if she asked me if I’d chased mine, I’d look like a fraud, or a bitter old man. So to stave off the fraudulence and the bitterness, I quit my job, we sold our house, and I enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Virginia, where I learned just how hard I’d have to work to get my writing where it needed to be. In the years that followed, I wrote short stories about circus clowns, arsonists, toxic mold, and indie rockers, which gave me the chance to experiment with different voices and structures and ways of thinking about stories [along the way, we also had three more children]. Now I teach at a small liberal arts college, I've published my first novel, and with a clear conscience I can tell my children to chase their dreams.
What inspired The World of Tomorrow?
I began the book with a few handwritten pages, just a flash of an idea about a young musician in the 1930s driving a brand new Buick Roadmaster in a moment of triumph. The sun was shining, neighbourhood kids jogged alongside the car, and he was moving steadily closer to the woman he loved. I ended the piece with the same man in the same car driving down the same road, except it was a few months later and everything had fallen apart. So I set out with the aim of filling in that blank: what had taken this moment of triumph and turned it into something tragic?
Can you draw a picture of what pre-war New York looks like, in your book?
Like today, New York was city full of contradictions: ballrooms and bread lines, mansions and tenements, the glitter of Times Square and the shadowlands of the Bowery. The Great Depression had been grinding along for ten years, and a lot people were eager to embrace the promises of the World’s Fair—skyscrapers, superhighways, a car in every garage. If the fair wasn’t their thing, they could dance to big bands led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, and so many others. I wanted to give a sense of New York as a city on the move, as the pulsing heart of America, and as a city full of immigrants, dreamers, and strivers.
Tell me how you found and built your characters, such as Tom, Francis, Michael, Lilly.
Each of these characters staked out territory that I wanted to explore in the novel. Francis is a wordly charmer and a risk-taker; his younger brother Michael is an idealist battered by his first disappointment with love. Tom, who is haunted by his days as a soldier in Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War, keeps the novel connected to the past, while Lilly, a Czech photographer scheduled to return to Prague, is staring the coming war squarely in the face. That said, I never wanted the characters to be stand-ins for larger ideas and concepts. I wanted them to be people, and that required me to seek out their private thoughts, to generate their memories, and to give them moments in the novel that were small, intimate, and allowed them to reveal who they were—joking around a dinner table, packing a suitcase, listening to music. I tried to start with small gestures and turns of phrase, see them walking around in the world, and let my sense of their own desires and fears guide where they would go.
The themes of movement and a hope for peace seem to play important parts in your story. What are your thoughts on these subjects?
The American story is kinetic—it’s about movement—which is why recent efforts by politicians to demonise immigrants, refugees, and others who come in search of a better life strike me as a betrayal of our basic values. And the hope for peace is certainly knit deeply into the novel, whether peace between nations as imagined in the International Zone at the World’s Fair or the simple wish for a safe and peaceful home that so many of the characters share. But the International Zone proved to be a mirage—the nations whose pavilions stood side by side were about to tear each other apart. And the home lives of so many of the characters are threatened by different kinds of violence and want. So just as the book is set between the opening of the fair and the outbreak of the war—between optimism and catastrophe—that same tension,on a more intimate scale, animates the lives of the characters.
“The American story is kinetic—it’s about movement—which is why recent efforts by politicians to demonise immigrants, refugees, and others who come in search of a better life strike me as a betrayal of our basic values.”
How have your roots and your personal history impacted this work?
I’m from a big Irish-American family full of dinner-table storytellers, and I tried to find ways to fit some of those stories into the book. One of the characters is inspired by my paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland to New York in 1929 with the dream of being an arranger in a big band. On my mother’s side, my grandparents left New York City to run a dairy farm—an unusual move for two city kids—and in the novel, Tom Cronin finds himself on a farm in the same part of the country. The experience of growing up in a large family also fuelled my interest in sibling relationships. Early in the novel, one of the characters offhandedly flatters himself by saying, “what wouldn’t I do for my brother?” He means it as a quip, a brag, but the rest of the novel puts that question to the test. Also, being from a big family, I know that there are stories we don’t tell. There are silences that are enforced, and that can get passed down from one generation to another. That also had an impact on the novel—using the book to explore what happens to a when the parents’ past has been kept secret from the children.
It is not easy to be a writer and a teacher. Do rules and self criticism often get in the way of your art?
Self-criticism is always a part of the writing process, but it can still be difficult to just dive in and allow myself to write a bad first draft—even though I know I’m going to revise and revise [and revise], and even though I tell my students all the time how important it is to just start writing. As for rules, I’m not a doctrinaire teacher. I would never tell my students “this is how you write a story.” Instead, I try to create an environment where they can take risks, try new modes of writing, and learn to do their best work. I ask a lot of questions about their drafts, with the aim of helping them learn how be self-critical [just not too critical].
What was the toughest part of making this debut? How long was it in the works?
I think the toughest part was just how long the book was in the works. Those first few pages were written in the summer of 2009 and I finished the book seven and a half years later. There were definitely moments when I thought I was never going to finish, and that no one but me would ever read what I had written. Pushing through that self-doubt, trusting that if I just kept going, I would find my way to the end—that was crucial to getting it done.
Can you take me behind your creative process?
My writing is often slow, sporadic, and fragmentary, but through a determination that borders on obsession I sort through the pieces and figure out the shape of the story. I don’t write from an outline, and any plans I make fall apart as soon as I actually start writing. The best work comes when I just jump into a scene with an image or a line of dialogue and then follow wherever the writing goes.
For this novel, I had to do a lot of research in order to get a feel for the people and the world they inhabited. I listened to big band music, pored over photos from the 1930s, studied fashion magazines and department store catalogues, read oral histories by Irish guerrillas and jazz musicians and domestic workers, and watched home movies taken at the World’s Fair. But I had to remember never to let the research overwhelm the story. These details of time, place, and voice were only useful if they helped me to see the world the way the characters saw it.
“Self-criticism is always a part of the writing process, but it can still be difficult to just dive in and allow myself to write a bad first draft—even though I know I’m going to revise and revise [and revise], and even though I tell my students all the time how important it is to just start writing.”
Who are your favourite authors?
There are too many to mention! Among the contemporary writers whose work really excites me are Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, AleksandarHemon, Edward P. Jones, Helen Oyeyemi, and Lydia Davis. And there are certain books that I keep returning to in my teaching, as much for my own benefit as for my students’: Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, House of Mirth, Dubliners, At Swim-Two-Birds, and the stories of Gogol and Chekhov.
What is your vision of The World of Tomorrow? Is this book a warning against the catastrophic times we seem to be headed toward?
I’m a lousy prognosticator, and already I feel like the world that existed while I was writing the book isn’t the same world that the book was released into. But even in June 1939, there wasn’t a clear sense of what was to come. Most people in Europe knew the war could start any day, but the New York newspapers were full of stories about how it wasn’t in anyone’s interest for things to get worse. It’s often only in retrospect that we know the narrative. We could be living in the moment before the next war, or the historic ecological catastrophe, or the arrival of the extraterrestrials (or, possibly, the cure for cancer). Whatever happens, we’ll look back and line up the clues and say it was inevitable.
What is next from here?
I have a collection of stories called THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG coming out in early 2019. And while I’m revising the stories for that, I’m finding my way into Novel #2.
Text Soumya Mukerji